In the Fullness of Time

This blog will focus on my fall sabbatical, and the ecology, evolution, and conservation of endangered and rare species in the Death Valley / Owens Valley area of California. Two taxa that I am particularly interested in are the Inyo Mountain salamander, and desert pupfish in the genus Cyprinodon. I plan on exploring not only the science of these species (and others), but also their beauty.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hold Steady

Hold steady - against the last three million years, the folding and faulting of desert ranges, the subsidence of valleys, the drainage reversals, the ebb and flow of ice and rain, the lava and ash, the Pliocene and Pleistocene. Ignore the vanished mastodons and mammoths, cave bears and dire wolves, camels and sloths. Persevere against the great drought of the Hypsithermal, the failing springs and rivers, the drying and dying plants. Hold steady against the hunters and gatherers, and later, the plow and the pump, the bulldozer and drainage ditch. Endure, too, the crayfish and bass, the sunfish and bullfrog, the cow and burro, the cattail, tamarisk, and common reed. Hold steady against the collectors and farmers, the developers, those who would dismiss you, and those who will never care. Persist against the flash floods and shuddering earth, the chytrid fungus and parasitic worm and viral plague. Hold steady in spite of your isolation, the loneliness of lost lineages, the last few of your kind hiding in rough canyons and tiny springs. And in the coming years, hold steady against our great and growing thirst. But mostly, now and forever, hold steady against our ignorance, what we have not learned, or refuse to know.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Oregon Slender Salamanders

The Oregon slender salamander is considered to be an “old growth associate,” and I found my first two on the Andrews below massive Douglas firs. One salamander was beneath a small chunk of decaying wood, while the other was buried deep within a rotten log. Both locations were surrounded by thick carpets of moss, with understory vegetation that included Oregon grape (not a true grape) and huckleberry, but I haven’t found enough individuals to develop any sort of search image.  Both salamanders were small – about 1 1/3 inches from the tip of the snout to the vent – and they had characteristic black bellies dotted with large white flecks, and coiled into tight circles when I disturbed them. Their dorsal surfaces were brick-red, with small, whitish-silver splotches along their sides.  These discoveries jolted me with tiny bursts of adrenalin, as much as when I discovered my first Harris’s Sparrow nests during my dissertation research in the Canadian arctic. But after a few minutes of intense excitement, I was left with a quiet joy; it simply was a pleasure to see the creature that drew me to the Andrews.
Oregon slender salamander
I could tell that the two salamanders belonged to the genus Batrachoseps because they had only four toes on each hind foot, and relatively small limbs. The scientific papers that I’ve read describe the skeletal and genetic characters that unite them more generally with other members of the genus, and most closely to the Inyo Mountains and Kern Plateau slender salamanders. And yet the Oregon slender salamander’s habitat is so dramatically different from that of the Inyo Mountains species that I cannot quite reconcile what the data indicate about their relationship with what my senses tell me about where they live. There is too much dissonance between the soggy, fecund expanse of old growth forest on the Andrews, and the tiny tracks of riparian habitat that thread through the high desert country of the Inyo Mountains. It's not only the type of habitat that differs so much between the species - it's also the amount. One paper estimated that the occupied habitat in the Inyo Mountains might not total more than 50 acres, while most of the 16,000 acres of the Andrews could support Oregon slender salamanders – not to mention all of the other mature forest within their 150-mile north-south range.  Another possible difference: Inyo Mountains salamanders surely move deep into the soil or rock crevices, but their surface world is mostly unidimensional, while the Oregon slender salamander’ surface world occupies three dimensions – length and breadth, but also with a vertical component, the interior of rotting logs.
Oregon slender salamander
I place a tightly coiled salamander in the palm of my hand, bring it close to my face, and contemplate the dark pupil of its eye. I wonder what it perceives of me, from across the great gulf of the 300 million years or more that separate our lineages.  For a few moments the larger world of the Andrews vanishes – the white rush of Lookout Creek in the valley below, the fertile scent of the moist forest, the Douglas firs towering above. I try to conjure up another salamander in another place, the rich riparian smells of some tiny Inyo Mountains stream, sagebrush and rabbitbrush covering the sun-baked hillsides, the guttural croaks of ravens overhead, the eastern scarp of the High Sierra in the distance.  And I imagine the space that separates my spot in the Andrews from the Inyo Mountains – southeast for six hundred miles through the Oregon Cascades, past the Klamath Basin and Mount Shasta and into the High Sierra, and finally across the great trough of Owens Valley. All of that distance, all of that time, the histories of two species unspooling across the years and miles…
I return the salamander, gently, to its resting place, and start back down the trail, the forest alive to me once more.
Morning light in Andrews old growth

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Andrews Experimental Forest #2

Andrews Forest old growth canopy - after the rains
I have come to the Andrews Experimental Forest partly (and perhaps perversely) because I have been thinking about the Inyo Mountains slender salamander, Batrachoseps campi , which lives only in a scatter of isolated canyons in the mountains that grace its name – a desert range 11,000 feet high, lying in the rain shadow of the High Sierra. It is one of only two desert salamanders in the world. I recall trudging up a heat-blasted alluvial fan at the edge of the Owens Valley on an unusually hot September day, weaving through the creosote bushes and past barrel cacti, harsh light pouring from the sky, bitter heat radiating from the desert pavement, before working my sweaty way into a shaded canyon, to a patch of seep willow and a small waterfall  – and at the base of the falls, beneath a flat rock, finding a small, chocolate-brown salamander.  Even though I had read the technical papers, and knew that the species occurred in the canyon, there was something stunning and unexpected and achingly beautiful about its presence.  It just did not make sense that an animal so sensitive to desiccation could end up in such a place, and endure. Instead, salamanders should live in a land of rain, where there are damp mosses and ferns and great chunks of rotting wood, where it is cool, and where there is the shade of great trees and the swirl and clatter of rushing streams.   
Old growth understory
Lookout Creek drainage, McKenzie River Valley: this place feels as though it ought to make salamanders happy, and by living here for a short while, I hope to more fully grasp the haunting uniqueness of the Inyo Mountains slender salamander. One file in the Andrews database lists eight salamander species as occurring here, although I suspect that a thorough search might yield a few more. In any case, one of the documented species is the Oregon slender salamander, Batrachoseps wrighti; along with the Inyo Mountains slender salamander and the Kern Plateau slender salamander (Batrachoseps robustus), the three species form a single lineage, united by several unique skeletal traits and similarities in their mitochondrial DNA. It’s a puzzle to me that, although B. campi and B. robustus are isolated from one another by only thirty miles, while the ranges of B. campi and B. wrighti are separated by six hundred miles, the genetic differences among the species are roughly equal.    
The Andrews, then, has attracted me for two reasons - the way in which it contrasts with the Death Valley region, and the presence of a close relative of the Inyo Mountains slender salamander. It is a perfect place in which to study and contemplate old growth forests, of course, but by virtue of contrast, it also is a wonderful environment in which to reflect on what I witnessed in the desert.  I desire contradiction and diversity.... This morning, before I went walking in the rain, one Andrews staff member apologized for the weather, and said that it was too bad that I’d “hit a bad week.”  No worries; I want dampness, fog, and rain – just not so much that it soaks through my rain gear, and makes me whine.  
Rough-skinned newt, Andrews Experimental Forest

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Andrews Forest #1

Weather report for the Andrews Experimental Forest, western slope of the Oregon Cascades, November 7th through 9th: mist, fog, drizzle, sprinkles, light showers, steady rain, downpours, wet snow at the higher elevations, temperatures in the 30s. The old-growth forest, mostly a mix of Douglas-fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock, stands shrouded in mist, wreathed in thick tendrils of gray fog, like a scene from some sixteenth-century Chinese landscape painting. The crowns of the trees, some more than 25 stories high, drift in and out of the clouds, and the views up valley are restricted and intimate.  Even when the skies are not spitting rain, the trees are - an almost constant shower drifting down from the foliage, which on some of the largest trees doesn’t begin until 150 feet off the ground.  The streams fill with runoff, and everywhere there is the sound of rushing water.
I clothe myself in layers of polypropylene, finish with rubber boots, rain pants and jacket, then throw a waterproof cover over my pack.  I walk up the Lookout Creek trail through magnificent old growth forest, flipping rocks (a few), lifting slabs of bark (many), rolling small sections of logs (many), poking through moss-covered debris in my search for salamanders. At the start of my hike the rain is light but steady - typical late-autumn weather for the Andrews, which normally receives more precipitation in November (14 inches on average) than during any other month of the year. And after two months of the desert’s heat and aridity, I welcome the moist coolness, the fresh, conifer-laden scent that comes with each breath. I welcome, too, the moss-covered logs, the huge trees, the yellow drift of bigleaf maple leaves, the touch of rain on my face, the calls of the forest birds slipping through the dark, dripping understory  – Brown Creepers, Varied Thrushes, Winter Wrens. Still, I feel a bit like an awkward tourist here; the ambience of this landscape offers such a contrast to where I was working just a few days ago – Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, in the transition zone between the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. There, the skies rained light instead of water, early November temperatures pushed ninety instead of forty, and the views extended for fifty miles through glorious, unobstructed, arid space.  Mosses and ferns were scarce and senescent refugees, hiding out in small, north-facing niches, a giant leather-leaf ash might hit thirty feet, and no self-respecting Winter Wren would ever grace Ash Meadow’s mesquite thickets.  If “variety is the spice of life,” then my days at the Andrews are flavored with habanero peppers….
Lookout Creek
The rain builds as I work uphill, transitioning from “light but steady” to “continuous and heavy.” Rivulets course down deadfall logs, spill off broken branches, track steep sections of the trail. The understory is a soggy carpet of Oregon grape, sword fern, mosses, and foam flower, the ground littered with twigs and bits of moss and lichen that have fallen with the rain. Fungal fruiting bodies are everywhere, pushing up through the thick duff, drawn into light by the third day of this storm. I give up on my salamander project and climb steadily, in hopes of staying warm, not yet ready to retreat.  My breath steams, my nose is another runnel. Slowly, inexorably, my old rain jacket begins to leak at the seams, and I can feel the damp spreading across my shoulders and down my arms.  It is great weather for ducks and salamanders, if not for humans, and when I see the first slushy snow on the trail, I turn toward the car. Enough; I am not interested in hypothermia. Today the salamanders can wait, much as they always have.
Old growth forest, Lookout Creek Trail

Friday, November 5, 2010

Ash Meadows

For twelve days I volunteered at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which is situated southeast of Death Valley National Park, in the transition zone between the Mojave, Sonoran, and Great Basin deserts.  Although Ash Meadows is about the same size as Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge plus the adjacent Tonawanda and Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Areas, it supports 25 endemic taxa, including four fish, eight plants, and 13 invertebrates. Twelve of these are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Remarkably, the number of endemic and listed species at Ash Meadows exceeds those of any other local area in the United States.  Another comparison: Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, at 3,370,000 acres, which is about 146 times as large as the nearby Ash Meadows refuge. Death Valley also has a much greater range of habitat types – yet its total of endemic species is “only” about 34. Although the boundaries of  Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge do not include the spectacular landscapes that characterize Death Valley, the refuge’s biodiversity makes it an equally beautiful place.  
Ash Meadows from the east; green areas in middle ground mark springs.
Death Valley NP (Black Range) in distance.

Large (!) endemic Warm Springs pupfish

Water bug with unlucky Warm Springs pupfish prey

The high degree of endemism at Ash Meadows  is due primarily to its archipelago of springs and wet alkali meadows, many of which are isolated from one another, and from other similar systems in the region. All of the endemic (and listed) species are either aquatic organisms, or dependent upon relatively wet, localized terrestrial habitats. Because most of the endemic organisms occur in or near only a few springs, any damage to the springs can lead to catastrophic population declines. Three endemic organisms went extinct during the twentieth century – the Ash Meadows montane vole, the Ash Meadows killifish, and the Longstreet Spring snail – while many others remain vulnerable to exotic species, invasive plants, and decreasing spring flows. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the refuge was established, a company began growing water-intensive alfalfa and cotton at Ash Meadows, even though the area’s water resources and alkaline soils could not support long-term agricultural development. Many springs in the area were devastated, along with their populations of fish and invertebrates. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1984, and since then the Fish and Wildlife Service has done an excellent job of protecting and restoring many of the springs. Much work remains to be done, though, and future, large-scale groundwater withdrawals (viva Las Vegas) could severely impact the hydrology and endemic species of Ash Meadows.
King's Pool, 1969. Image courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service.

King's Pool restored, 2010

The other day, I walked across the desert from Devil’s Hole, the only home of the Devil’s Hole pupfish and an endemic riffle beetle, to School Spring, one of several low-volume springs that support the endemic Warm Springs pupfish and Warm Springs naucorid (an aquatic insect).  The half-mile walk took me only 15 minutes, and yet for those fish and flightless insects, Devil’s Hole and School Spring might as well have been separated by a continent. The species are that isolated, and they have been so for at least ten thousand years. There is a beauty in their isolation and tenacious persistence, but also an ineffable sadness. For the pupfish and insects, the desert is an immense and inhospitable barrier, and they are irrevocably committed to their tiny habitat islands.  Despite their proximity to one another, they are just about as alone as any creatures can get in this world. And so, as I wove through the cacti and creosote scrub, and thought about the perilous existence of so many species at Ash Meadows, the desert was for me both metaphor, and habitat. 
Ash Meadows desert at sunset; appropriately named
Last Chance Range to left.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Snipe Hunt - for Salamanders

When I visited the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, Dr. David Wake mentioned an unconfirmed salamander report from Sheep Spring in the Avawatz Mountains, just south of Death Valley.  A week ago, I hiked to the site with Patrick Emblidge, a Brockport Environmental Science alumnus who works as a biological technician for the US Geological Survey out of Henderson, Nevada. We left camp at 5:00 a.m., and so our five mile walk up a broad alluvial fan to Sheep Spring was leavened by a brilliant, waxing moon. It was a lovely time to hike – cool and perfectly still, with the viscid scent of creosote bush in the air, and the Panamint Mountains standing clear to the north, more than 50 miles away. We reached Sheep Spring before sunrise, and found a small stream of water flowing for about 150 meters through thick stands of mesquite, tamarisk, common reed, and willow. Although there was water enough for slender salamanders, the site didn’t feel right to me - the soil was mostly coarse granitic debris, the water was warm (about 70°F), and there was too much dense vegetation.  We found no salamanders at the spring, and I doubt that there are any there. I’d like to think that I’ve developed a decent search image for slender salamanders, and that I’d be able to find them if they were present, but it’s far easier to demonstrate that a species is present than to prove that it is not there.
There are other sites where Inyo Mountains slender salamanders are rumored to occur, and entire ranges that have not been thoroughly searched. And so, as I walked back down to the car, I wasn’t disappointed by our failure to find salamanders at Sheep Spring. I’d had a beautiful walk, which led me to imagine wandering the arid canyons of the Argus, Inyo, and White Mountains. It would take years to search all the possible habitat, those springs hidden far from the nearest washed out, tire-shredding four-wheel drive track. In those lost and distant desert ranges, there must be undiscovered populations that have hung on for thousands or even millions of years, surviving glacial advances and retreats, as far as they can get from the concerns of humans, patiently unrolling the long and beautiful skein of time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The View from Telescope Peak

In late September I visited Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America at 272 feet below sea level. The hypersaline waters support the tiny Badwater snail, which is endemic to springs in the area. A look west from the snail’s home, past the salt-rimmed pools and across a huge, yawning space, took in the main crest of the Panamint Mountains and Telescope Peak, rising 11,300 feet above Badwater. It was a hot morning, and as I watched the snails retreat into the shade of salt crust and pickleweed, I imagined the cooler world of the Panamints, and searching for a plant restricted to the highest 500 feet of Telescope Peak – a subspecies of bedstraw, Galium hypotrichium tomentellum, whose entire population may number less than a thousand individuals.
Badwater; Telescope Peak in the Distance

Other tasks, and vagaries of the weather, forced me to postpone hiking up Telescope Peak, and it wasn’t until October 23rd that I set off on the 14-mile hike. I wanted to see sunrise from the summit, and so I left the trailhead at 3:20 a.m., climbing through scattered pinyon pine to the long, sagebrush-covered ridge leading toward the peak. It was a cold and beautiful morning – the full moon high in the western sky, broken clouds scudding overhead, the snow-covered mountain gleaming in the distance.  I switched off my headlamp and walked with the moon, through a sea of sagebrush laved by silvered light, before climbing into bristlecone pines and crusted snow. I reached the summit at dawn. Below, clouds lay over Death Valley and Panamint Valley like blankets of thick, damp gauze; only the main crest of the Panamints, and the shadows of the Argus, Inyo, and White Mountains, far to the west, rose above the mists. Badwater was invisible, although I could recall the view from decades before, when Melissa and I had made the hike on a much warmer October day, and the white salt flats lay shining in the sun.  I pulled on several extra layers of clothes and huddled in the lee of some rocks, trying to escape from a bitter north wind. For a half hour or so, I sat and thought about pupfish, toads, and salamanders – the lost and lonely populations of the region, the trajectories of their histories, the imperative of water. Much of their beautiful country lay hidden beneath the clouds, as obscured as are the species’ futures.  In place of certainty we only have their tenuous present, and our hope, rising through the clouds like those distant desert mountains.
Sunrise from Telescope Peak

When I began to shiver, and sunrise broke over the clouds, I took up my pack and started down from Telescope Peak, descending into the sweetness of the gathering day.

Bristlecone Pines, Telescope Peak

Same Planet, Different Worlds

On October 22nd I met with Richard Friese, a US National Park Service hydrologist, to talk about groundwater withdrawals in Nevada, and how they might affect biodiversity in Death Valley. Although the massive project planned for north-central Nevada probably will have little direct effect on Death Valley, other groundwater withdrawals closer to the park’s eastern border do threaten the area’s springs and streams. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) holds groundwater rights in several basins with aquifers that drain toward Death Valley, and current withdrawals from the Amargosa Valley, immediately to the east of the park, vastly exceed recharge rates.  Ironically, a “green energy” solar farm planned for the Amargosa Valley will require a substantial amount of groundwater. 
There’s a famous Gary Larson cartoon, “Same Planet, Different World,” a title appropriate for the attitudes of the SNWA and National Park Service on groundwater withdrawals.  It is no surprise that the SNWA is more optimistic about the process than the Park Service. According to Mr. Friese, research suggests that there are “no young waters” in the region’s deep carbonate aquifers.  If most deep groundwater dates from the last glacial maximum, then current recharge rates are low, and pumping will inevitably deplete the aquifers: “Anytime you do large-scale exporting, something is going to dry up.” Another concern is that well monitoring, although important, may give a false sense of security, for hydrogeological models suggest that large groundwater systems may take a millennium to reach a new steady-state. In other words, if monitored wells indicate that storage is declining too rapidly, it could take many years for a decrease in pumping to stabilize the system.  One of the most important lessons from the history of resource exploitation is that a conservative approach, one embracing environmental uncertainty, is necessary if the resource is to be managed in anything approaching a sustainable manner. I would hope that this will be the case with groundwater pumping in the Death Valley region, but I am not optimistic.
The other night, I slept on an alluvial fan at the base of the Avawatz Mountains, just south of Death Valley National Park, near to where Amargosa River pupfish and Saratoga Springs pupfish swim. Eighty miles and several mountain ranges, one 12,000 feet high, stood between my camp and Las Vegas, but a vast, nacreous halo of city lights gleamed above the peaks.   Even though my camp felt lost in the desert’s great emptiness, it was impossible to ignore those lights, or the future that they implied; there are so many people out there, and so much thirst.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Lake Mead Blues

This morning, on my way from Arizona to Death Valley, I stopped for a few moments at an overlook above Hoover Dam. I walked out onto the dam and looked east, past the huge intakes for the dam’s turbines, over the waters of Lake Mead and the huge swath of bleached rock surrounding the reservoir. The bleached rock told an eloquent story about how the recent drought in the Colorado Basin has affected the river’s flow, and suggests how continued drought will impact water supplies available to Las Vegas. Las Vegas currently gets 90% of its water from Lake Mead, but the surface elevation of Lake Mead dropped about 100 feet between the late 1990s and 2009. The elevation of the falling reservoir is approaching 1050 feet, the level of water intake 1; intake 2 would become inoperative at 1,000 feet. Although the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) maintains that there is only “a 1 percent probability that Lake Mead will reach an elevation of 1,075 feet by 2011 and 1,025 feet by 2014,” models suggest that conditions slightly better than those experienced between 2000 and 2008 could cause Lake Mead to decline to 1,000 feet by 2015. This would lead to severe water shortages, because sufficient water could not be drawn from Lake Mead through existing intakes. In anticipation of this problem, the SNWA is constructing a third intake at 860 feet elevation – but because the intake will use the pumping station for intake #2, the effective intake level would still be 1,000 feet.
As I see it, the declining levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell (combined storage currently about 52% of capacity), prospects for continuing drought, and the almost inevitable growth of Las Vegas, will push exploitation of groundwater stored in the deep aquifers of northern and central Nevada. Impacts on water-dependent ecosystems will follow.
I thought of these things as I drove through the tangled sprawl of Las Vegas and pushed north into the basin and range country, toward Death Valley and the pupfish of Salt Creek and the Amargosa River.  
Lake Mead from Hoover Dam

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Las Vegas Blues

On October 13th, I risked the freeways of Las Vegas to meet with Zane Marshall, Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). I first met Zane during the Devil’s Hole pupfish count, when he was working as a volunteer diver tallying pupfish in the deep parts of the spring. However, I wanted to talk to him in a formal setting about the long-term prognosis for water-dependent species, given the declining level of Lake Mead, the growth of Las Vegas, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans to begin massive groundwater pumping in northern Nevada by 2020.
Zane, who looks to be in his late thirties, holds a Masters in Biology from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He is a life-long resident of Las Vegas who grew up “chasing lizards,” and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a biologist. He has worked for the SNWA for fifteen years, and describes himself as committed to environmental protection. He is married, has two small boys, and is passionate about his work. He believes that biodiversity has intrinsic value, and hopes that his boys will be able to “see what I’ve seen” in the natural world.
We talked for more than two hours about the mission of the SNWA, current water resources in the region, SNWA’s efforts to assume a proactive role in protecting biodiversity and endangered species, and possible effects of withdrawing up to 125,000 acre-feet of water per year from deep carbonate aquifers in northern Nevada. I was struck by several things during our discussion. First, the SNWA takes climate change very seriously, and anticipates that long-term drought will probably decrease the amount of water available from the Colorado River. Second, the SNWA appears to have established credible monitoring and mitigation programs, and is working to ameliorate potential impacts of groundwater withdrawal on the biota of the region – although some environmental groups might dispute this claim. Third, in spite of the complex hydrological models that have been developed for aquifers in the region, no one is certain how the aquifers will respond to groundwater pumping. Fourth, the SNWA has entered into an agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs to work together to protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems in basins that will be affected by pumping. But here’s the problem: protection is defined, in only a very general sense, as occurring when there are “no unreasonable adverse effects.”  But what do “unreasonable” and “adverse” mean? And to what extent do those terms depend on one’s perspective? The SNWA’s definitions may be quite different from those of the National Park Service or US Fish and Wildlife Service, and no one has dealt with this problem.
At the end of our talk, I stood up and looked out a window in Zane’s tenth-floor office. The view to the north took in the tangled intersections of three freeways, which were thick with rush hour traffic. Beyond was the sprawl of metropolitan Las Vegas – the strip malls, subdivisions, golf courses, condominiums, and industrial buildings, marching out toward the Spring and Sheep Mountains, twenty miles or more away. When I lived in Las Vegas – off and on, from 1975 through 1979 - there were roughly 400,000 people in the area. Now there are about 2,200,000. By 2035, the SNWA projects that 3,660,000 people will live in the Las Vegas area, which receives less than four inches of rain per year. Lake Mead is dropping, and there is a limit to how much water can be saved through conservation. Ultimately, the SNWA will have to pump more and more groundwater to meet increasing demand. There will, at some point, be “unreasonable adverse impacts;” the water needs of Las Vegas will affect groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and in doing so run headlong into the imperatives of the Endangered Species act. In spite of the best intentions of agencies such as the SNWA, there will be trouble. As I watched traffic crawl along the congested freeways, and contemplated venturing out into the insanity,I wondered how the Devil’s Hole pupfish will survive in the face of such an insatiable thirst. Las Vegas will have its water, but I do not know if the fish will have theirs.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Inyo Mountains Slender Salamander #2

I park my car and walk up another arid alluvial fan in the Inyo Mountains, climb for sixteen hundred feet through creosote bush scrub, over desert pavement, and up a boulder-strewn wash. Ninety minutes of dry and sweaty walking brings me into a narrow limestone slot; the sound of falling water drifts down canyon, past a cluster of seep willow.  This looks like slender salamander habitat, and I only have to flip two rocks before I find one – a large, chocolate-brown individual, with a beautiful constellation of silver-gray iridophores on its dorsal surface. I continue upstream for a half mile, climbing steeply through a series of small barrier falls, past maidenhair fern and flowering columbine, flipping rocks, and finding another salamander along the way. This is a good spot, the best I’ve found so far – and the only reason I know of it is because a biologist showed me an unpublished report by Derham Giuliani (1931-2010), an “old-time” naturalist who spent many years exploring the Inyo, White, and Sierra Nevada Mountains. Derham knew more about the natural history and distribution of Inyo Mountain slender salamanders than anyone, and also did a tremendous amount of field work on beetles, chipmunks, and ground squirrels of the region.  A memorial to him is at

Inyo Mountains Slender Salamander
I head downstream, and from where the tiny stream disappears into alluvium, I can look out across the arid, shadscale scrub of the Owens Valley, toward the eastern scarp of the High Sierra. In those mountains, only fourteen miles or so away, are tumbling streams, lakes cupped within glacial cirques, lush meadows – the types of habitats that would make salamanders happy. A few hours of hiking and driving would take me into the High Sierra, but for the Inyo Mountain slender salamanders living in this little canyon, tied as they are to this narrow thread of water – well, the Sierra might as well be a continent away. They have nowhere to go if this canyon ever dries, if the land falls too deeply into drought.

Owens Valley and High Sierra from the Inyo Mountains

Later in the day I stop at the Manzanar National Historic Site, where ten thousand Japanese-Americans were interned for over three years during World War II, in an American version of the concentration camp. There is a wonderful interpretive center at the site, along with replicas of a guard tower, barracks, and mess hall. As I wander around Manzanar, thinking about racism and fear and stupidity, I realize that I can see canyons in the Inyos where slender salamanders lived when the camp was active. And somehow this knowledge – that those patient creatures were living out their lives, and had endured, completely removed from the march of human folly – gives me some comfort.  Although I haven’t worked out all the reasons for feeling as I do, I know that the lives of salamanders offer us some solace, in the face or personal and more general grief. To understand the nature of this process is one of the reasons that I am here.
Manzanar Relocation Camp; Inyo Mountains in the Background

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This Road Sign is Telling Me Where to Go...

On the way to Death Valley....

Black Toad

Deep Springs Valley is about nine miles long and five miles long, and sits cradled by the White and Inyo Mountains. The valley has no drainage outlet, and hasn’t since the Pleistocene. It is a lonely place; a little-used state highway crosses the western side of the valley, and Deep Springs College (26 students [!] and a handful of faculty and staff) sits at the northern end of the valley, but that’s it for human inhabitants.  Deep Springs Valley also is home to the endemic black toad (Bufo exsul), which occupies four springs at the southern end of the valley, above the dry alkaline bed of Deep Springs Lake. The specific name, exsul, means “exile,” which is so wonderfully appropriate. For when you sit near one of the springs at night and look out on the dark rim of the valley, or up at the huge vault of heaven, and see or hear no sign of people, and think about how far away the nearest other toads are – then you understand the meaning of what it means to be exiled, like Napoleon on St. Helena.  
Black toads don’t look all that much like traditional toads, a la the eastern American toad. They are smaller (a big one measures about two inches, snout to vent), with a narrower head, and they have few warts. They also are beautifully colored – adults are mostly jet-black above, flecked with creamy yellow, and have a thin dorsal stripe of the same color. They were easy for me to find along the margin of a ditch draining one of the springs, and I counted over 100 in 30 minutes of searching. But I found few black toads at two of the other springs where they are known to occur. My inability to find many toads at the two springs could have been due to a poor search image, or to searching in the wrong place, but I wonder.  Perhaps succession and habitat loss is having a negative effect on the population – much of their breeding habitat is choked with emergent vegetation, which wasn’t the case thirty years ago – and there always is the specter of chytrid fungus. Whatever the case, I worry. For when you are exiled, there may be nowhere else to go.
Black toad, Deep Springs Valley

Black toad habitat; Deep Springs Valley in background

Slender Salamanders

It’s been difficult to find slender salamanders. I searched five documented localities in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for Batrachoseps robustus, the sister taxon (perhaps) to the Inyo Mountains slender salamander (B. campi), and three known sites for B. campi. I’ve driven too many miles, walked some more, soaked my “Rite in the Sweat” field notebook, and flipped a lot of rocks, but only managed to find salamanders at one site in the Inyo Mountains. Still, it was exciting to see slender salamanders again, and to consider their ability to hang on in such an inhospitable environment. There are 13 known,  disjunct populations of Inyo Mountains slender salamanders, and genetic data suggest that they have been isolated from one another for much longer than since the end of the last glacial advances – perhaps for as long as 5-10 million years. They are survivors, persisting in the face of drought, flash floods, the uplift and erosion of mountains, and time - for time, in an evolutionary sense, leads both to adaptation, and to extinction. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, "I am become Time, the destroyer of worlds." Yet the Inyo Mountains slender salamanders have managed to resist time – and for me there is comfort in having held these tiny creatures in my hand, and knowing that they live on, in the face of so much adversity.
Inyo Mountains Slender salamander

Slender salamander habitat, Inyo Mountains

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Devil's Hole Pupfish

One species that particularly fascinates me is the Devil’s Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis), which has the most restricted distribution of any vertebrate species. This pupfish is restricted to a single sinkhole in the vicinity of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The sinkhole is about 15 meters deep, and an equal distance wide at the desert’s surface; at the bottom is a pool that is, at most, 20 meters long and 3 meters wide. The waters extend down to at least 450 feet, and are a constant 93°F – although the pupfish spend most of their time near the surface, especially on a 10-meter-long shelf no more than 30 centimeters deep. This shelf is crucial to the species’ survival, because that is where productivity (i.e., food) is highest, and where most of the fish spawn. Water depth thus becomes a crucial issue – and in the past, groundwater mining in the Ash Meadows area (before it became a refuge) lowered the water level about 60 centimeters. The threat to the pupfish eventually led to federal ruling to stop water pumping, which in turn led to a lawsuit.  Eventually, in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the federal government has the right to restrict water withdrawals if they affect the water table beneath its land. Conservationists and biologists rejoiced, but some Nevadans were not so pleased; an editorial in one newspaper suggested that the solution to the Devil’s Hole pupfish “problem” was rotenone, a fish poison.

Devil's Hole Pupfish

The pupfish are managed jointly by the U.S. National Park Service, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Nevada Division of Wildlife. I spent the 24th and 25th of September observing the semiannual Devil’s Hole pupfish count, which involved two divers (plus their safety backups) and three biologists doing surface counts. When the biologists were not working, I could lay on a temporary grating and observe the pupfish from a distance of only a few inches. They are remarkable creatures. As in many other pupfish, spawning males are an iridescent blue. However, they are much less aggressive than most other pupfish, and show little evidence of territoriality. They also are smaller than other species – their maximum length is less than two inches - and they are able to persist in a high-temperature, low oxygen, and low productivity environment. To think that they have done so in this one pool, for at least ten thousand years – the estimated time since they were isolated from other pupfish – is amazing. 
Divers Preparing to Count Pupfish

When the divers were eating lunch and resting between dives, I lay on the grating and watched the pupfish go about their business – patrolling their space, tugging at bits of food, engaging in the occasional chase.  There are less than two hundred adults now, and there is nowhere else for them to go. There are other springs and other pupfish close by – as they crow flies, less than two miles away – but as the pupfish swims, their relatives might as well be an ocean away. I thought about these fish, living out their lonely lives, isolated for the last ten thousand years or more.  What are their lives worth? Are they worth the $400,000 per year that the Park Service allocates for research and protective measures? The answer lies beyond traditional cost-benefit analyses, of course. I am hoping that some sort of eloquent answer to this question will come from my time in the desert, but for now I’ll gladly say that my heart and mind stand with the pupfish. Lying on that grate, and looking down at the pupfish – or up at the clear blue vault of the desert sky – the tenacity of those tiny creatures, their patience in the face of ten thousand years of isolation, is astounding.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Owens Pupfish

In August, 1969, Phil Pister carried two buckets of Owens pupfish away from a dying spring – the last individuals of a once-common species, pushed  to the edge of extinction by habitat destruction and predation by introduced crayfish and bass. Phil placed the buckets in his truck, drove four miles over rough desert roads, and dumped the fish in “BLM Springs,” where the pupfish survived and flourished, and where they persist to this day.  I had heard about Phil’s work on behalf of native desert fish, and had read an account of his experiences with Owens pupfish, and so, when I came to the Owens Valley, I wanted to meet him.  He’s an 81-year-old retired California Department of Fish and Game biologist, who is anything but “retired.” He’s active in the Desert Fishes Council, writes prolifically, and still teaches; in a few weeks he’s off to the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia to led a seminar on ridding high mountain lakes of introduced species. Phil’s energy gives me hope for our collective future, and for my personal one. Age, he says, is partly a matter of attitude: “Hell, I’ve known people who are still alive, but have been mostly dead for twenty years….”
Phil Pister
I met Phil at his small house in Bishop, then drove out to BLM Springs, with plans to camp, and watch pupfish. BLM Springs is in a spectacular setting – at the edge of a large marsh complex, with the ten-thousand foot eastern scarp of the High Sierra rising to the west, and the equally magnificent White Mountains to the east. The main part of the spring is perhaps twenty meters by ten meters in area, and about 1.5 meters deep; a narrow channel curves off to the east, where it drains into Fish Slough. When I arrived at the spring, I saw a few pupfish, clustered around “vents” where fresh water welled up from the bottom of the pool. But then the desert winds blew up, and the chop obscured everything below the surface. It was the sort of wind that kicks up clouds of dust, and makes you curl into yourself. I went to sleep irritable and spitting sand, but awoke at midnight, to a full moon and beautiful calm. I got up and walked down to the spring, where the reeds shivered, gently. A bat flicked across the surface of the pool, and the Sierra stood clear to the west, in a garden of silvered light. I clicked on my headlamp, and there, at the bottom of the pool, were the pupfish, each no more than a few inches long: beautiful swimmers, refugees from the Pleistocene, alive to their possible futures. I watched them for a few minutes, then went back to sleep in the warm desert stillness.
BLM Springs; High Sierra in the distance
Owens pupfish (UCDavis image)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Meetings Along the Way

On September 13 I stopped off at Oregon State University to talk with Dr. Fred Swanson of the US Geological Survey and Dr. Deanna Olson of the US Forest Service. Dr. Swanson is a geologist who has worked on teams studying ecosystem processes on Mount St. Helens, and at the Andrews Experimental Forest. The Andrews Experimental Forest is a LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) site on the western slope of the Oregon Cascades, and is a world-renowned center for research and education about the ecology and management of streams and temperate coniferous forests ( Dr. Swanson also has been instrumental in developing the Long Term Ecological Reflections, in which “writers visit sites in the forest to create an ongoing record of their reflections on the relation of people and forests changing together over time” ( An associated program is the Spring Creek Project, which is “dedicated to bringing together the wisdom of the environment sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative expressive power of the written word, to find new ways to understand and re-imagine our relation to the natural world.”

Near the end of my salamander and pupfish explorations I will be spending a week or more as a visiting scholar at the Andrews Experimental Forest, where I will have the opportunity to consider my sabbatical experiences, and begin the process of transforming them into a book. I also want to search for the Oregon slender salamander (Batrachoseps wrighti). Seeing a close relative of the Inyo Mountains slender salamander (B. campi) in wet forest habitat more typical of salamanders will allow me to appreciate more fully the wonderful uniqueness and tenacity of salamanders that have survived in desert habitats for millions of years. Because Dr. Olson studies effects of forest management practices on salamanders, I wanted to talk with her about the basic ecology of Oregon salamanders, and how I might best find them in November.  They are not easy to find, and I will not have a good search image, so any information will help in my search.  
On the fifteenth I traveled from my sister’s home outside Sacramento to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at the University of California, Berkeley, to meet with Dr. David Wake. Dr. Wake is an expert on salamander systematics and ecology and has published 365 technical papers (I am only about 330 papers behind). Dr. Wake and I talked for several hours about slender salamanders, and I came away from our meeting with a better understanding of the genus Batrachoseps, and an unpublished report that will help me locate B. campi populations in the field. Although Dr. Wake is an emeritus professor, he still has a very active research program, some of which is focused on reasons for recent declines in salamander populations. Recent evidence suggests that a chytrid fungus is having a major impact on salamanders, much as it has affected many frog species.  Recently, a team of researchers revisited an elevational transect in the mountains of western Guatemala that Dr. Wake had sampled in the 1970s; they found that terrestrial salamander species once present in the thousands had completely disappeared.

Joseph Grinnell
The MVZ was founded by Joseph Grinnell in 1908. Grinnell and his students were very active researchers and teachers, and trained many of the preeminent vertebrate zoologists of the twentieth century. Grinnell was the first person to use the term “niche” in an ecological context, and developed the field notebook style that I use, and teach to my students. Field notebooks from generations of MVZ biologists are housed at the Museum, and are accessible at These volumes are used by current researchers to study phenomena such as faunal change in Yosemite National Park over the last one hundred years ( Seeing copies of Grinnell’s field notebooks, and how they are being used today, made me determined to insist that my students (especially graduate students) cultivate the ability to take good field notes, in the manner of generations of MVZ biologists.
I was raised in the Bay Area, but had not seen the Berkeley campus since 1969, at the height of Vietnam-era protests. Berkeley has changed (no more ragged street vendors selling illicit drugs), and there were fewer signs of political activism, but in other ways the campus seemed much the same. UCB is still a sprawling, vibrant, and intense place, with a swirling mass of students, professors, and whacked-out street prophets streaming along the paths. And as I walked through groves of eucalyptus and oak on a warm and sunny afternoon, the rich scents and memories of my youth came flooding back. Proust was right; memory is entrained by many things, but smell takes us back, so strongly, into our deep history.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Across the Hundredth Meridian

Loess Hills, western Iowa

Just east of tiny Presho, South Dakota (population 588), on a morning of brilliant light, I crossed the hundredth meridian. The evening before I had driven through the Loess Hills of western Iowa, a well-watered country of oak woodlands and meandering streams. Fields of corn lay cupped between gentle hills, the land painted with a palette of greens. The sky was clearing after a thunderstorm, and the air smelled like rain. It seemed to be – perhaps a little falsely – a benign world. But 250 miles to the north and west, by the time that I reached the hundredth meridian, the sense of the land had changed dramatically. The trees had disappeared, or were mostly limited to swales and north-facing breaks. The sky had gone vertical, the air was shorn of its humidity, the horizontal had peeled back toward a more planar horizon.

At the edge of the West, the soundtrack for the morning’s drive was The Tragically Hip’s “At the Hundredth Meridian”: “Left alone to get gigantic / Hard, huge and haunted…” Out near Presho, the land is hard because of the unpredictable, bitter droughts of summer, the wind-blasted blizzards of January, the aching imperatives of aridity and cold. The land is huge because the great swaths of space and undulating short grass prairie create a place where, as Willa Cather wrote, “The earth is the floor of the sky.” There is distance, and then more distance. And the land is haunted by the ghosts of the Lakota, who were pushed out of their country, and onto reservations like Pine Ridge, just to the south of Presho – and by the ramshackle, weather-beaten farm houses scattered across the High Plains, monuments to abandoned dreams. For rain did not “follow the plow,” and no amount of human initiative and determination could breed crops out of the dry soil.

                       High Plains west of Presho, South Dakota

There is nothing magical about the arbitrary line we call the hundredth meridian, but it does parallel, closely, the north-south run of a line marking an average annual precipitation of twenty inches. East of this line, as in the Loess Hills, there is moisture enough, mostly, for agriculture that does not require irrigation. But beyond the hundredth meridian, dryland farming on the 160 acres allocated by the Homestead Act to each yeoman farmer was impossible. And so, after an initial rush onto the High Plains the country began emptying out, as the immigrants went bust. It is still emptying out. Jones County, just west of Presho, lost almost 9% of its population between 2000 and 2003; North Dakota had more people in 1920 than it did in 2000.

On a morning of beautiful light in early September, when a breeze blows gently out of the west and the prairie is washed by green, after a summer of unusually bountiful rain, the High Plains seem like they would be an easy place to live. But the beauty disguises a tougher reality – that this would be a lonely, demanding home. It would take all of your energy and determination, I think, to make a life here. Still, I love the space, the emptiness, the gathering sense of the arid West. The imperatives of this aridity draw me toward Death Valley, and into the ecologies of species that manage to hang on in a world where water is so very rare.

I thought of these things as I pushed on, further into South Dakota, and then Wyoming and Montana. It was a good day for driving, a 1000-mile kind of day, when the motion was an easy, comfortable vector. On the third of September, headed west along I-90, it was as Richard Hugo had it in “Driving Montana”: ‘Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide / as the mouth of a wild girl, friable / clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost / in miles of land without people, without / one fear of being found, in the dash / of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl / merge and clatter of streams.’

Monday, August 23, 2010

Although most of my research during the last sixteen years has focused on the ecology of breeding birds in early successional habitats in the Northeast, I am fascinated by several species of desert organisms - particularly the Inyo Mountains slender salamander (Batrachoseps campi) and desert pupfish (Cyprinodon). The fate of these species is tied to water, the desert's most precious resource. This dependence on water, and the ability of pupfish and salamanders to persist in a very arid and harsh environment, is stunning and compelling. For example, the photo above shows my son, Martin, standing in creosote scrub habitat at the base of the Inyo Mountains. It is a heat-blasted, xeric landscape, and appears completely alien for any salamander - and yet they go about their business around a tiny spring in the canyon visible over Martin's right shoulder.  The existence of slender salamanders in this isolated canyon in the Inyo Mountains is tied to the ecology and evolutionary biology of the species, and to the geological and climate history of the region. It is an existence that is unexpected, wonderful, and beautiful. And so my goal over the next few months is to explore the wonder and beauty of the desert, and of pupfish and salamanders - and hopefully, to begin building a book of creative nonfiction, which I shall call "In the Fullness of Time."